In the tradition of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, Theodore Roethke offers, in the nonsense of the rhymes, names, and subjects in the first set of poems, a world in which children can laugh and frolic. It is a world in which the imagination is given free reign to create helter-skelter levity by distorting the ordinary way in which children are taught by adults to view the world. Freed from the restraints of sober sense, bears talk and serpents sing. The rhythms are as bouncy as the nonsense that plays on the predicaments of children—their fears, feelings, and outlooks and their fascination with magic.
The poems for older children and adults have the air of magic about them, too, and the imagination plays among the dark places that adult children would find if they would go exploring in nature. An occasional moral marks the early poems and is mocked; in the later ones, more ominous strains are heard in the lines, and images reveal a side of nature that frightens the child and warns the adult. The forces of nature are exposed in images of the wind’s violent thrashing and the “ghostly mouths” of the “Orchids.” The weed puller, it is suggested, digs his own grave, “Hacking at black hairy roots” and finding “fern-shapes,/ Coiled green and thick.” Roethke’s adult world is not far from the demonic forces and grotesque forms of the fairy tale. Here, it is disguised as poems for adults.